It’s really not often you meet a Red Crescent Secretary General, two senior members of government, the leader of a prominent local NGO and visit two impoverished settlements in one, so it’s going to take a while to process everything we’ve taken in today.
The big thing, though, has been the ripple effect of training. Our last meeting was with a lovely lady called Suyorkan, in library number 77, the new settlement of Ak-Orgo on the outskirts of Biskek. A city, which, is poor in a way like no other I’ve ever been to – outside the downtown district it becomes really hard to tell areas apart. No roads are kept in any kind of order, there’s no pavements and the verges are all overgrown. Without looking really hard for tell tale clues in the design of walls and plot gates, you can’t tell whether you’re in a commercial area, an upmarket neighbourhood or a slum from the main roads. In fact, even after you hit the backstreets it’s hard to tell for a while.
Suyorkan’s library, with its wonderfully communist name, is inside the local secondary school. She was a librarian in the Soviet union, but had to give up work in the early nineties to look after her disabled son and, later, her sick husband too. When she wanted to come back to work, she found the only training in essential IT skills was available through the Red Crescent program.
Ironically, although IT course kicked off her journey, there are no computers in her tiny library yet. Just 8,500 books in a room smaller than most classrooms along with a huge card index and some artwork made by her son and his classmates. That will change, though, as she’s just received a $9000 grant from the Soros Foundation to buy some laptops.
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who possessed something that really falls under the old cliche of ‘steely determination” before, but if Suyorkan doesn’t have it then the meaning escapes me. From her library she helps to organise classes in IT, sewing and hairdressing for other women of her community, as well as first aid classes and classes for teaching disabled children. She also runs a health outreach program for families with disabled children – who have moved to the area from outlying villages at an astonishing rate in the often misguided hope that they’ll be able to get help from the government. Suyorkan helps these families with basic care skills and organising the ludicrous amount of paperwork they need to complete in order to receive benefits.
The ripple effect is that the woman and children Suyorkan helps then go on to pass their knowledge onto others, or at least encourage more people to attend training sessions organised by NGOs at the library, when they might not otherwise have heard of them. She’s been branded a troublemaker and urged to give up fighting a system which has the odds stacked against them by her husband, but she keeps on going, and the longer she keeps it up the more visitors arrive at her library to see the things she’s done and help improve on it. Next year, she hopes, she’ll be able to open a second branch in the basement of another nearby school with room for even more books and training classes.